The Whites

The WhitesJust as I was getting started on The Whites by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt), I saw that the readers in the Tournament of Books group on Goodreads were mostly unimpressed with it, and my interest in it flagged a bit. I’m glad, however, that I decided to go ahead and read it because I ended up liking it quite a bit. I’m not sure I’d have considered it a candidate for the Tournament of Books, but part of the fun of this competition is that they include such a wide range of books, some of which are, like this, just solid examples of a genre that doesn’t always get attention in general literary contests.

The Whites of the title are “white whales,” criminals that got away from Billy Graves and the other “Wild Geese,” a group of young officers in a Bronx anti-crime unit in the late 1990s.

No one asked for these crimes to set up house in their lives; no one asked for these murderers to constantly and arbitrarily lay siege to their psyches like bouts of malaria, no one asked to feel so helplessly in the drip of this nonstop black study that they had no choice but to pursue. But there they all were: Pavlicek forever stalking Jeffrey Bannion; Jimmy Whelan pursuing Brian Tomassi, the ringleader of a white street gang who, in the aftermath of 9/11, had chased a Pakistani kid into an oncoming car; Redman Brown stalking Sweetpea Harris, the murderer of a college-bound high school baller who had made him look bad in a playground pick-up game; Yasmeen Asaaf-Doyle forever tracking Eric Cortez, a twenty-eight-year-0ld small-time felon who had stabbed to death a reedy myopic ninth grader because the kid had talked to Cortez’s fourteen-year-old girlfriend at their school.

Billy Graves is the only one of the Wild Geese who’s still a cop 20 years later, but he’s been relegated to the overnight shift, largely because of an accidental shooting of a kid years ago. The job is a routine for him now, and he’s good enough at it, but he’s no longer a shining star. But when Jeffrey Bannion’s body is found at the end of a trail of blood in Penn Station, he is brought back to the old days. Back then, Billy’s partner, John Pavlicek, was convinced that had Bannion killed his twelve-year-old neighbor, but the crime was pinned on Bannion’s younger brother, whose mental disabilities made him an easy target in prison, where he was murdered after only five days. And Pavlicek never forgot.

Billy’s chapters alternate with short glimpses into the life of another obsessed cop, Milton Ramos. Milton was a detective, “a misguided reward for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” taking down two perps in a barber shop when he happened to be there getting a shave. His obsession goes further back, to his childhood, when his brother was shot in a case of mistaken identity. As far as he knew, the person to blame was long gone, shipped off to Atlanta right after it happened, but a chance encounter brings them together again, and he decides to see justice done.

Already, that’s a lot of plot and a lot of characters for one book to hold, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Besides the Wild Geese and their families, there are the Whites and their associates, plus Billy’s present-day crew and the crimes they’re investigating. It’s easy to get lost in all the names and relationships. I ended up reading most of the book in a single day, which I think was a good thing because when I put it down for a couple of days after I got started, I found it difficult to gather up all the threads. When I was immersed in the world, it was easier to follow.

And Price excels at creating a world to immerse yourself in. Police procedurals aren’t necessarily my favorite types of crime novels, but I do enjoy them now and then, and I enjoyed this. Price plunges right into the day-to-day work and the ways that work affects life outside the Job and long after the Job is past. One of the things I especially appreciated is how the daily grind just never stops. When the White Whales come swimming back, Billy has to deal with that on top of his daily work and his family troubles. And Ramos, it turns out, brings a whole separate set of complications that add to the pressure. The writing helps here, too. I liked Price’s voice—it’s just right for the story.

All these different threads address the challenge of getting justice and the frustration of seeing it denied. And it’s about guilt. The conclusion is unsettling, but somehow right, “reasonably happy,” as Billy says. A sort of justice done, but not a perfect one.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 6 Comments

This House of Sky

this house of skyIvan Doig’s memoir about his childhood and adolescence in rural Montana, This House of Sky, is an interestingly angular book, all joints and rough skin and knobby knees. This comes from the two driving forces of the book smashing together: voice and place, place and voice, tangling and rushing as if there were nothing different about the two and yet everything to separate them. In the end, it’s Doig’s contention (which he never quite makes explicit) that one shapes the other and the other shapes one, in ways we may never quite understand. It is a kind of terroir deeper than any vine can grow.

The question of voice in this book is hard to pin down, for a memoir, because Doig is trying to create three voices. One is his own, of course — a distinctive, insistent, poetic voice. One is his father’s, which has a Scottish burr and a rhythm tied to the seasons and necessities of sheep-farming. And one is his maternal grandmother’s, a voice roughened by hardship and sharpened by work, but softened at last into love for her intransigent son-in-law and her grandson. So within a page or two, you have Ivan’s father jacketing an orphaned lamb: Mother him like hell now, don’t ye? See what a helluva dandy lamb I got for ye, old sister? Who says I couldn’t jacket day onto night if I wanted to, now-I-ask-ye? And then Grandma: This here was your mother’s hope chest. The kids’ dad made it back at Moss Agate, when she first started going with Charlie. With your dad, I mean. He worked on this at nights for the longest time. See, he didn’t have anything to make it from but some pieces of flooring, but he wanted her to have a hope chest of some kind. he did a good job with it. He could when he wanted to. It’s sat here all these years. I want it to be yours now.

And then, between the constant echoes of those strong, harsh, loving voices, Doig himself: My mood there was to see everything as the edges of tomorrows, as if time were waiting in coiled shimmers behind the outline of whatever my watching picked out. The gasoline tank for the ranch machinery, with its round red face of metal which rang a deep blung when I hit a ball against it; that would be the vast green left field fence of Fenway Park if I grew up to be a baseball player. The meadows of wild hay splotched richly along Camas Creek, and the climbing slopes of grass: if I became a ranchman as Dad was, there would be such land mile upon mile.

Doig talks about the endless hard work of the ranch, the stinginess of the land, his father’s talent at the work and especially at managing the men; his grandmother’s discomfort if she ever sat idle even for a moment. He talks about the hardship, the dark side of the stubbornness that creates success in such a place, the sandpapery pig-headedness that ruins relationships and sends marriages shattering. He talks about the urges that sent him to school, reading everything he touched, and finally to college, out of ranch work and into a life of journalism and eventually published books. But all the time, the place and the voices — his father’s and grandmother’s most of all, but other voices too — that shaped him all his life.

This book about Montana was fascinating to read just after I read Fools Crow, James Welch’s book about the Pikuni (Blackfeet), a tribe living in the same territory just a hundred years or so before Ivan and his father were there. Doig and his family had a Blackfeet Indian reservation as northern neighbors, where they sometimes took lambs to graze for the summer on rented land. They saw the Blackfeet as troublemaking alcoholics who were unwilling to work — they themselves being acutely aware of the endless work it took to survive on that land — and they despised the Indians as a result. Doig as narrator is slightly sheepish about this racist and ignorant assessment, but represents their harsh judgments as they were. For me, having just read the beginning of the decline of the Blackfeet, it was a sobering moment of the book.

It took me a little while to begin to enjoy Doig’s writing, with its jerky pace, its rapid switching between voices, and its deep rootedness in western territory and experience. Once I began to settle into what he’s doing, however, I enjoyed his storytelling more and more until the end of the book. This is a book about relationships — relation to place, and to family — and so is universal as well as singular.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 9 Comments

Carmen and Other Stories

CarmenI’ve been waffling for a couple of days about what I want to say about this collection of short stories by 19th-century author Prosper Mérimée (and translated from the French by Nicholas Jotcham). When I think back on the stories, I find myself liking them. They take some satisfying turns and a couple offer nice little jolts of horror or shock. But the experience of reading them was not so great. I mostly blame the poor attention span and exhaustion that has come with starting a new job. My brain just wasn’t with-it enough to really appreciate these stories as I was reading them.

But it’s not just me that’s the problem. The stories have some qualities that make them harder to follow than perhaps they could have been. For example, many of them take a long time to get going.  The longest story, the novella-length “Columba,” does not even introduce its title character until 20 pages in, and the story is deadly dull until them. The vengeful Columba breathes life into the narrative (by bringing death, but still…). Similarly, “Carmen” holds off on introducing its title character for 12 pages. Instead, we get a story of an archaeologist’s encounter with a bandit. In this case, the warm-up is pretty exciting, so I can’t complain about the delay.

Both Carmen and Columba are examples of powerful and passionate women who lead the men around them astray. Then, of course, there’s the creepy Venus of Ille, from what may be my favorite story in the collection. Many of the stories are concerned with being driven too much by passion. When people let their feelings and impulses guide them, things do not end well—and things generally don’t end well in these stories. And it’s not just women who lead men astray. People get drawn into all sorts of alliances and disputes that doom them. A little boy might transgress against his family honor by helping (or not helping) a thief. A lover lets accusations and jealousy get the better of him. A soldier goes to war.

A couple of the stories, my favorites in the collection, “The Venus of Ille” and “Lokis” delve into the supernatural. Most, however, focus on the real world and on human codes of conduct. Rules of honor are significant, and Mérimée seems to have a conflicted relationship with these rules as following them so often leads to tragedy. Yet flouting the rules, as the gypsy Carmen does, is not good either. How to navigate society’s expectations is a big question in these stories.

And then there’s the very odd story, “Tamango,” which the introduction describes as “a piece of abolitionist propaganda.” I’m not sure that I see it that way, but it may be my modern sensibilities kicking in. It’s the tale of a slave ship, which Mérimée describes in a way that seems like joking but serves to reveal shocking facts about the conditions on these ships. There, it might serve the abolitionist cause. But the story has a comic tone that feels a little too much like making fun of the enslaved people, especially once they gain the upper hand and are unable to do anything to save themselves. Still, Mérimée acknowledges their humanity, which is more than many did at the time.

I wish now that I’d read these stories when my mind was a little better able to focus, as I might have enjoyed the experience of them more. I could have set them aside but momentum took over, and I read them all, wishing I were having more fun with them. (The exhaustion made choosing something different to read difficult as well.) Looking back, I think they are sometimes overlong, but most are clever with some pleasingly dark twists, which I do often love in a short story.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 2 Comments

The Force of Spirit

force of spiritA few years ago, I read Staying Put, a collection of personal essays by Scott Russell Sanders. That collection had a sense of coherence around the same theme: what does it mean, to a geological place, and also to the mind and spirit of a person and a community, to stay in the same spot for years, even decades? I admired the collection, its willed entanglement with Indiana, and its tough, interesting voice, and wanted to read more. This collection, The Force of Spirit, is both less coherent and less interesting. There are some quite good essays, but for me, the overall effect was much less enchanting.

Some of the best essays in the book are the shortest. One is “Heartwood,” in which Sanders looks at the grain and pattern of wood in his home and reflects on patterns in nature, and on the value of seeking meaning in a chaotic world. This essay is only a few pages long, but its concision is part of its beauty. Another short essay — perhaps my favorite — is “Cabin Dreams,” in which Sanders makes what is almost just a simple list of a certain kind of books that have been meaningful to him over the years. These books are ones in which the author has found a small cabin to hide away in and write, close to the landscape, from shore to mountain — books from Black Elk Speaks to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to Walden. This brief essay has all the force of Sanders’s longing to do the same.

Some of the longer essays lose a little of their power by meandering; some are even a bit self-righteous. I am absolutely the right audience for an essay like “The Power of Stories,” for instance. I believe in that power wholeheartedly. But when Sanders announces that of all the reasons we should read stories, he is going to address only ten — ten? That seems like a lot. I bet you could boil that down, buddy, and hold my attention a bit better. “Silence,” an essay about Sanders’s experience worshipping with Quakers, would have been very interesting, except for his repeated sideswipes at other denominations. (“It’s no wonder that other religions put on a show, anything to fence in the wandering mind and fence out the terror of the Spirit. It’s no wonder that only a dozen people would seek out this Quaker meeting on a Sunday morning, while tens of thousands of people were sitting through scripted performances in other churches all across Indianapolis.”) In there for what purpose? I can’t say. But congratulations on the off-putting pat on your own back.

I really liked and appreciated Staying Put; I thought it had some very interesting and even important things to say. The Force of Spirit was a much more mixed bag, with some good essays and some with a dulled point. If this author interests you, start with Staying Put and then look for some recommendations.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments

Pomfret Towers

pomfret towersThis is the fifth in Angela Thirkell’s delightful series of Barsetshire novels, and it is just as much of a delicious petit four as the rest of them so far. In this one, Alice Barton, a painfully-shy young woman who dabbles in art, is forced to go to her first house-party at Pomfret Towers. She is mortally terrified of supercilious housemaids, hunting, the wrong undergarments, being asked to dance, and other girls, and she wishes for sudden death to cover her. But things turn out otherwise for Alice.

Also present in this novel is a raft of wonderful characters, including the curmudgeonly Lord Pomfret, his deeply kind heir Mr. Foster, the unpleasant and self-absorbed author Mrs. Rivers and her even more unpleasant and self-absorbed artist son Julian (with whom Alice, naturally, falls in love because of his Greek-godly looks), good-natured horse-and-dog lover Roddy Wicklow and his sister Sally, and Mr. Johns, who has the misfortune to represent Mrs. Rivers’s books, as well as Alice’s mother’s.

As you can imagine at a house-party like this, shenanigans ensue in the most charming way imaginable. Mrs. Rivers’s blatant attempts to inveigle Mr. Foster into marrying her daughter Phoebe and to manipulate Mr. Johns into giving her ever-larger advances on her books are foiled; Alice, to her surprise and pleasure, makes a friend; Julian’s narcissism and rudeness have less consequence than they might. Thirkell makes constant, gentle fun of authors and artists, but she has compassion for everyone except the utterly self-involved — and even they may only be very, very, young.

Angela Thirkell is very funny in a low, burbling way. This book is frothy, self-deprecating, and witty — and sometimes poignant as well. The stakes are never very high, but there’s genuine feeling behind everything from proposals to nights of quiet loneliness. There are some lovely references to Trollope (the dean at Plumstead Episcopi who insists that no one writes as Dickens and Thackeray these days, for instance) as well. I have liked this series so much thus far. Do they ever connect up? Will I see any of these characters in other books? Because I’ve enjoyed their company so much that I’d gladly seek it out again and again.

Posted in Fiction | 13 Comments

The Tsar of Love and Techno

Tsar of LoveAnthony Marra’s exploration of (mostly) 20th-century Russia with the story of a painter charged with editing paintings, removing objectionable figures or adding important ones. His work spreads across Russia, and one painting in particular haunts Marra’s characters. It’s not much to look at, as Roman, the censor, notes:

On my desk lay a pastoral by the nineteenth-century Chechen painter Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets, perhaps the dullest work in his catalogue raisonné. An empty pasture in late daylight rises to a crest in the canvas’s top third. A white stone wall cuts a quiet diagonal across the field. A dacha, a well, and an herb garden extending halfway up the pasture hill, foregrounded in shadow. There is no sign of life or movement, not even a lost goat.

As directed, Roman add a party boss to the foreground of the picture, but he doesn’t stop there. He also adds a little Easter egg, something he adds to his edited paintings whenever he can, the face of his brother Vaska, executed and erased years earlier for religious radicalism. But the heart is too powerful to let a loved one stay forgotten. That, to me, is the hopeful message of this novel. Again and again, people are robbed of their loved ones, their truths, their histories, but they never lose the memory entirely. It may take years, but there’s enough of a flicker to keep it alive.

I’ve seen this book described as a short story collection, but it read like a novel with a large cast to me. Each chapter addresses a different character or set of characters, but they’re tightly connected. A ballerina Roman edited out of a photo in one chapter is a political prisoner in another. Her granddaughter becomes a movie star whose boyfriend is conscripted to fight in Chechnya, eventually doing forced labor in the very field in the painting Roman edited. That’s just barely skimming what happens in this book. Marra lets us see this world from a variety of perspectives—artists, miners, curators, criminals, soldiers.

As complex as the book is, Marra’s storytelling is extremely well-disciplined, both in terms of the prose and in the structure. Hardly a moment seems out of place or wasted. Seemingly insignificant moments echo through the narrative as other characters happen upon lost histories or cross paths with figures from the other chapters. The chapters might be able to stand alone as individual stories, but I don’t think they’d be nearly so impressive as they are together.

For some reason, I had the idea that this was one of those madcap satirical novels of recent history. I suppose it’s the improbable juxtaposition of terms in the title. As much as I can appreciate books like The Sympathizer and The Orphan Master’s Son for their black humor, I’m easily exhausted by those kinds of books. This book, however, was quieter. It has funny moments, but I never felt Marra was trying to make me laugh. It’s assured and confident. I hope it does well in the Tournament of Books.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments

Fools Crow

fools crowFools Crow is a deeply engaging historical novel by James Welch, following the lives of the Pikuni (Blackfeet) in the early 1870s in Montana. The main character is a young man named White Man’s Dog, but after a few brave and intelligent moves on behalf of his community — from successful horse raids to truthful visions to a hard-earned position as a medicine man — he earns the name Fools Crow.

This book shows the richness as well as the hardship of a bygone way of life. Welch is extremely skillful at drawing together the threads of a community: hunting buffalo (and then going through the process of getting every possible scrap out of the animal); gathering roots and berries for food and medicine; doing beadwork, quill work, and working hides for clothing and shelter; feasting and talking and gossiping; creating relationships, bringing up children, training horses and dogs, working through the pros and cons of polygamous marriage, moving from summer camp to winter camp, praying and asking the gods for help; encountering other tribes — and so much more.

The rhythms of this life for both men and women are vividly sketched, but without the blur of nostalgia. Welch suggests that this communal life had great riches to offer, but also its serious difficulties: smallpox and the rebellion of the young men among them. The worst problem the Pikuni face, and one that casts a deep sadness over the last half of the book, is their entanglement with the Napikwan: the white people who have taken over more and more of the grazing ground of the buffalo for their own white-horn cattle and sheep. Welch shows the mutual distrust, fear, and incomprehension between these groups, and how much each has to lose. Yet there’s still a sense of hope: Welch’s own position in the future as the beneficiary of Pikuni culture and stories means that he knows all is not completely lost.

One thing that’s interesting about the way the novel is written is that Welch uses a lot of native terms for animals and plants. We hear about the blackhorn, the sticky-mouth, the littlemouth, the wags-his-tail, the real-bear, and so forth. It’s the same with other cultural terms as well. This, to some degree, puts me outside the text — which is as it should be, since I’m not Pikuni and I live in 2016. But in many other ways, I’m completely inside the text: the characters and relationships are entirely familiar. The pull of inside/outside is so artfully done. It made me wonder how this was received by Native Americans today, including Blackfeet.

Another thing I noticed is that the point of view (third person limited) shifts from one character to another very freely. In a book named Fools Crow, you’d expect that most of the book would be from that character’s point of view, and that’s probably so. But we see things from many characters’ eyes, men and women, old and young, and even occasionally from a white character’s perspective. You don’t see this kind of lending of perspective in many novels — this freedom of the word — and it emphasizes the value of both individuals and communities.

I’m a little afraid I may have made it look like this book is very serious or didactic. It’s actually an incredibly rich and engaging plot and characters, full of wry humor and a certain joyful and tricky mysticism that added color to everything. It was an utter pleasure to read, and I highly recommend it.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 10 Comments

Bellwether

BellwetherOh my goodness, Connie Willis knows how to make me laugh. To Say Nothing of the Dog is among the funniest books I’ve ever read, and Belwether is awfully funny, too. It also has me thinking about how we define science fiction. You see, I was going to talk about how I’ve always thought of Willis as a science fiction author but that this isn’t science fiction—it’s a comic novel set in the present day (or the novel’s present, meaning the early 1990s). But as soon as I thought about it, I realized that it’s a book all about scientists. So there’s science and there’s fiction. Science fiction. But not futuristic science fiction. No one is going into space or traveling through time. They’re filling about paperwork and trying to figure things out (often paperwork).

The narrator, Sandra Foster, is a sociologist who studies fads—hula hoops, ouija boards, mesmerism, and hot pants. Where do they come from, how do they spread, and when and how do they end? She works in R&D for a company HiTek. HiTek funds all sorts of research, but they mostly have meetings where they engage in sensitivity exercises and learn about new management schemes (always in the form of an acronym—PESTO or GRIM, for example). Her bigger problem, however, is Flip, the interdepartment assistant who refuses to do anything more than deliver the mail, and she rarely does that correctly.

Flip’s misdelivery of a package puts Sandra in touch with a biologist named Bennett O’Reilly who is studying chaos theory. He also appears to be entirely impervious to trends. As a student of fads, Sandra doesn’t know what to make of him, but she can’t stop trying to figure him out.

There are also a bunch of sheep.

This book is a lot of fun to read. Each chapter begins with a short description of a fad that may or may not relate to events in the chapter. And we get Sandra’s observations of the fads around her and the way people quickly jump from one bandwagon to another, pretending that their previous favorite thing had never been any good at all. It’s all exaggerated for humorous effect, and for me, it was effective humor. I especially appreciated how Willis was able to use the fact that the book is all about fads to include a lot of 90s fads without making the book seem dated. And then there are the ones that I’m pretty sure she completely made up.

It helps, too, that I really liked Sandra as a narrator. She’s smart and observant and cynical without being unkind. In fact, her kindness proves to be the key to her success, if it can be called success. One of the book’s main interests is what leads to scientific break-throughs. Is it all hard work? Flashes of inspiration? Pure luck? Sandra contemplates lots of stories of scientists who made great discoveries by chance. For instance, it was an untidy office and accidental contamination that led Alexander Fleming to discover penicillin’s healing power. In their studies of fads and of chaos theory, both Sandra and Bennett are trying to get at where ideas come from. And HiTek is trying to make ideas happen. So is there a secret? And can it be harnessed?

Every time I read Connie Willis, I want more. I’ve read To Say Nothing of the DogThe Doomsday Book, and now Bellwether. So what should be next?

Posted in Fiction | 20 Comments

The Dinner

the dinnerTwo sets of parents have decided to meet at a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam in order to discuss a terrible crime committed by their children, and what their next steps should be: Serge and Babette; Paul and Claire. This, at its simplest and most claustrophobic, is the premise of Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner. During the course of the novel, narrated by Paul, we learn everything these couples eat (or don’t) and everything they know (or don’t) with the gradual stripping away of secrets — including quite a few secrets that ought to have stayed under guard.

Interestingly, the crime that the two beloved sons, Rick and Michel, have committed is revealed almost right away.The violence is realistic, and the crime has been instantly uploaded to YouTube, so any lingering hope of secrecy is faint at best. But the real secrets have to do with Paul’s absolute loathing for his brother Serge, a successful politician, and his certainty that everything that Serge touches is a sham. Paul criticizes Serge’s choice of restaurant, his demeanor, his adoption of a son from Burkina Faso (all but a publicity stunt, according to Paul), his summer house in the Dordogne… everything is rotten, false, and bitterly wrong. And he wants revenge for it.

The sheer nastiness of this seething cauldron of anger takes the focus away from the actions of the teens (sure, what they did was horrible, but…) and puts it onto Paul’s personality. He is a former high-school history teacher, retired for medical reasons, and as we see the ways he is prepared to defend his wife and son, we understand more and more about his unreliability. I, for one, though, wasn’t exactly gobsmacked by this; I saw Paul as unreliable from the beginning. The real problem is that Koch provides a way out: Paul has some sort of neurological problem, and perhaps so does Michel. If this book is considering the nature of evil, and thats what it is, these characters just became much less interesting. (I’ll add that the food at the restaurant is much less pretentious than the author seems to think it is. Serge Lohman orders… a steak. Big deal.)

In fact, this leaves only one character left to be interesting, and that’s Claire: she, too, is willing to defend her family under any circumstances, and she’s not “sick.” What does that mean? But Koch doesn’t explore this notion, he just leaves us with the idea. This book is very readable, and it has some quick-and-dirty slices and jabs, but is too oddly shallow to think about the problem of evil or responsibility in any interesting way. I’d leave you with a metaphor about being careful about ordering dessert, but I’ll let you figure that one out.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 12 Comments

Unexplained Laughter

unexplained laughterI’ve read several of Alice Thomas Ellis’s books now, and I always leave them thinking how good they are, but also how unsettling. Her books are comedies of manners, but they are also severe considerations of morals and conscience, through the lens of Catholic justice. She is extremely funny and even whimsical, but her wit can be so trenchant that an unsuspecting reader can have her fingers bitten to the bone. She is no stranger to terrible grief, nor to whistling past the graveyard, sometimes in the same sentence. And through each book is woven a thread of what I might call matter-of-fact otherworldliness — strange things happening, or possibly not happening, just out of the reader’s vision.

In Unexplained Laughter, Ellis repeats a successful formula: she puts an extremely ill-assorted group of people together in a small place and watches their discomfort (and sometimes their outright mischief) grow and flourish. In this case, sophisticated journalist Lydia has beat a retreat to rural Wales in order to recover from the latest in a depressing series of bad romances. She brings along a companion, Betty, “the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes,” an action she regrets almost as soon as they arrive; the two have deliciously ironic dialogues as their different temperaments clash.

Their only social life consists of people from the neighboring farm: dour Hywel; his fearful wife Elizabeth; the doctor with whom Elizabeth is having an affair, and Beuno, who is studying to be a priest. They have walks, picnics, a dull dinner — all in marked contrast to Lydia’s vibrant life in the city — but the conversations are something else again. Instead of the banal talk Lydia expects, she discusses God and love, good and evil, conscience and betrayal. (She dubs Satan “Stan,” dropping one of the As, in order to make him feel a little less threatening.) Beuno is “one of us,” she thinks, but it is she who changes.

At intervals, when she’s alone, Lydia hears laughter — laughter only she can hear. This, we gradually come to understand, is the laughter of Angharad, a mute, deformed “free spirit” (or demon), Hywel’s younger sister, who roams the woods and hillsides, eavesdropping on conversations, bound to the land but free in a different way. This eerie echo of Lydia’s own spiritual state adds an unreliable note to the novel. Does Angharad even exist? Who, or what, is she? As Lydia learns more about the real world, the natural world, the human spirit, who can she thank for her revelations?

This is Alice Thomas Ellis: unsettling. She leaves you wondering what exactly happened, what is the truth, and whether it matters. She doesn’t care whether you believe in spirits, or selkies, or fairies — it’s not the point. Instead, she wants you to take the unexplained laughter for what it’s worth, and see what you make of it. I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone; it can be a bit biting, a bit curmudgeonly, a bit knotty and ambiguous. But I think she’s very good indeed, and I look forward to reading a lot more of her work.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments